By Claudia Salinas
The Oak Grove School District (OGSD) in San Jose, California has an enrollment of 10,000 students, with nearly a quarter of the student body classified as an English Learner (EL). The majority speak Spanish at home, but 60 languages are represented and, like many districts across the state of California and nationwide, Oak Grove had serious decisions to make regarding the best plan for getting their ELs to proficiency and reclassified in a timely fashion.
In California, the state stipulates four minimum criteria for certifying proficiency in English, one of which is administration of a valid academic skills assessment. Oak Grove began working with Curriculum Associates during the 2017–2018 school year when the district elected to use the i-Ready Diagnostic for math and reading to fulfill the academic skills criterion along with their use of the state test, the Smarter Balanced or SBAC, to help students achieve reclassification.
Amy Boles, Director of Educational Services, explained the decision: “The SBAC is taken in the spring, which can be limiting for reclassification. i-Ready provided us with three additional opportunities to fulfill reclassification criteria and gauge our ELs’ performance throughout the year. Plus, the SBAC is not given in first and second grade. So, i-Ready created a path to reclassification for those kids that was not there before.”
A Pathway to Proficiency
Not only are the total number of ELs in U.S. schools increasing, but long-term English Learners―those who remain classified as ELs for the majority of their schooling―are the biggest growth demographic within the EL population. As much as any other data point, this illustrates why goal-setting is the first priority when developing a plan for ELs. Curriculum Associates sets the goal of ensuring ELs are prepared for reclassification within four to five years and provides the students in districts like Oak Grove with a real path toward that goal.
This can seem like an ambitious goal at first, but it is within reach. To get there, the following three factors should be the cornerstones of a district approach:
- Language development strategies ― This includes making sure ELs have plenty of time to talk, share and discuss in the classroom; students can best develop language by practicing. Another consideration is providing appropriate cross-curricular vocabulary instruction to make sure all students can actively engage in the classroom discourse. For example, knowing not only the “math words,” but having the vocabulary to talk about
- Culturally responsive teaching principles ― Cultural differences, if unacknowledged, can perpetuate inequity, and this goes beyond just language. For example, a math problem featuring cowboys may seem simple from a mathematical perspective and your students may be familiar with all the math terms. But what if they’ve never seen a cowboy before―will they be able to form a concept of the problem and focus on the math? In this case, providing a definition of potentially unfamiliar words is a culturally responsive strategy to ensure students learn vocabulary and are also able to concentrate on the subject at hand.
- Strategic scaffolds ― This term, which has come into use from the Council of Great City Schools, means making sure not to over-scaffold for students, and in the process fail to allow them to go through productive struggle. Determining the right amount of scaffolding to appropriately challenge students isn’t easy, but makes the difference in ensuring their continued progress and ability to reach proficiency on schedule.
Applying the Approach in Oak Grove
Once students in Oak Grove took the adaptive i-Ready Diagnostic, teachers across the district were able to see where students stood in relation to grade level in reading and math and could also see, more granularly, which subset of students were below level in a specific domain; for example, the Number and Operations domain in math. With i-Ready’s online lessons, Oak Grove’s ELs were receiving instruction aligned to the College and Career Readiness Standards and to their individual placement level. i-Ready lessons prioritize best practices for supporting ELs, including the following:
- An emphasis on high-utility vocabulary words and phrases, helping students to participate in the classroom discourse
- Deliberate, contextual presentation of the English language at the word, phrase, sentence, and discourse level
- Higher-order thinking activities that use graphic organizers, guided instruction, discourse, and on-page corrective feedback
- Scaffolds to help Spanish speakers leverage their first language to understand the lessons and practice English, such as access to cognates
The Final Push to Reach Reclassification
Making sure ELs have enough time to hear, absorb and practice language is a major piece of success, and Boles created a solution to add more time for these learners. Before entering her current role as Director of Educational Services, Boles was principal of Parkview Elementary, during which time she started an After School Academy to give her ELs more exposure to i-Ready Instruction. She used Title III funds to offer a twice-weekly extended school day and invited ELs from Grades 4–6 to sign up. During this time, students could increase their time with i-Ready to a weekly goal of 90 minutes and could receive interventions and small group lessons from a teacher when they struggled.
In 2018, more than 600 Oak Grove EL students qualified for reclassification―more than double the number from the previous year. Clearly, this is a major achievement, but ensuring the students’ continued success is also essential. To keep a check on the rigor and competence of their protocols, OGSD follows reclassified ELs as a subgroup until they graduate. The group, referred to by the acronym RFEP (Reclassified Fluent English Proficient), is currently the highest-performing student group within OGSD, and achievement continues to rise. In 2018, the OGSD RFEP population tested as 68 percent and 79 percent proficient in ELA and Mathematics, respectively, handily outperforming their counterparts in Santa Clara County and the state of California.
With results like these, OGSD can feel confident their plan is working and they have developed an effective pathway to EL reclassification and long-term success!
Claudia Salinas is the Vice President of English Learning at Curriculum Associates and Regional Manager for Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. In her current role, Claudia is responsible for working with school districts to meet the needs of their English learners and struggling learners by bringing research-based professional development, assessments, and instructional materials that work in unison to provide a comprehensive system. Claudia also works with authors and editors to develop solutions to address the needs of all struggling students.